Although Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) was not receiving time gaps in his earpiece, he must have had a fair idea that he was winning the Giro d'Italia. Turning a mammoth gear of 58x11 as he left the start gate in Monza, he composed crisp lines through the early bends of the concluding time trial with the concision of Piet Mondrian.
Dumoulin began the day in fourth place overall, 53 seconds off race leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and he knew that he needed to peg back a shade more than 1.8 seconds per kilometre if he was to divest the Colombian of the maglia rosa. By the first time check, Dumoulin was gaining on Quintana at a rate of 3.5 seconds per kilometre. Come the second checkpoint after 17.4 kilometres, he was the virtual race leader. By then, he was already receiving orders not to take undue risks on the final run-in to the stage 21 finish in Milan.
On crossing the finish line in Piazza Duomo, Dumoulin was ushered swiftly to the podium area, which stood in the shadow of the mighty cathedral. The beaming faces of the Sunweb support staff that greeted him told him that the Giro was his, and Dumoulin broke into a broad smile as he freewheeled to a halt.
Dumoulin's blood ran cold, however, when he retired to a tent behind the rostrum to watch on television as his rivals finish their time trials. As Quintana rattled across tram lines on the entry to Milan, the on-screen graphics erroneously suggested his deficit in the virtual general classification was a mere three seconds. Dumoulin's features tightened into a picture of concern as he processed the information.
Only when Quintana entered the final kilometre could Dumoulin accept that all was true: He had indeed won the Giro d'Italia. Second place in the time trial gave Dumoulin overall victory, 31 seconds clear of Quintana and 40 ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).
"I didn't know any time gaps, because I just wanted to focus on my own TT. Then I spoke to my sports director, and he told me not to take risks anymore in the corners. He said that already at halfway, and then in the last kilometres he told me to be really safe," Dumoulin said. "When I crossed the line, everybody told me, 'You've won, you've won.' But then I looked at the TV and the gap was only three seconds, and I was so angry with everyone. 'How can you say I've won it?' And I'd already celebrated too ... But eventually it all came good."
After the podium ceremonies had finally been completed, Dumoulin, now safely reacquainted with the maglia rosa, took a seat in the mixed zone and munched on a slice of pizza. "My mom just bought it in some shop here," he explained. "I'm having a little bit of a hunger flat." As a scrum of reporters formed around Dumoulin, Sunweb press officer Peter Reef stood at a discreet remove, holding the Trofeo Senza Fine for safekeeping.
Dumoulin's Giro will perhaps forever be remembered for his abrupt toilet stop at the base of the Umbrailpass on stage 16, but the Dutchman was able to make light of the incident even when it seemed as though it might cost him final overall victory. Through the final week, some tifosi took to waving rolls of toilet paper at Dumoulin as he rode past, a gesture he accepted with laughter.
"I've still made history by shitting in the wood but now in a positive way," Dumoulin said on Sunday. "I will go down in the history books for winning the Giro after pooping in the woods, it's quite amazing."
Levity aside, that day on the Stelvio was, despite the time conceded to Quintana and Nibali, the moment Dumoulin realised that he had the ability to win the Giro. Although he had won atop Oropa in the wake of his victory in the Montefalco time trial, his athletic performance on the Giro's tappone was perhaps the most startling of an already remarkable sequence.
"I lost only two minutes in the last 30k – well, actually only 40 seconds after my incident, so after that, I thought, 'Maybe I'm better than I thought,'" Dumoulin said. "It was still a long way, but I knew there was still the time trial too."
The third man
After coming within a mountain pass and a half of claiming the 2015 Vuelta a España, Dumoulin marked himself out as a potential Grand Tour winner, but he lined up for this Giro among the second tier of favourites, behind men like Nibali, Quintana and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). As the race progressed, however, it soon became clear that Dumoulin was, at times, simply on another level.
Only in the succession of high mountain stages in the final week did he begin to show signs of weakness, conceding the pink jersey to Quintana at Piancavallo on Friday, but with the grand finale in Milan to come, Dumoulin remained poised to become only the third Dutchman to win a Grand Tour, after Jan Janssen and Joop Zoetemelk.
"No, I never expected to win the Giro," Dumoulin admitted softly. "Maybe somewhere in the future, maybe one time with a lot of luck or whatever, but not this year. I would have been very happy with a place in the top ten. If I had done that, then I would have been very happy with how I coped with it."
Janssen and Zoetemelk won two Grand Tours apiece, claiming the Vuelta a España in 1967 and 1979, respectively, with each proceeding to win the Tour de France the year after their Vuelta victories. This year, with Dumoulim, Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk all featuring in the Giro, the Netherlands press has decamped en masse to Italy. In 2018, one can expect the Dutch love affair with the Tour to blossom all over again.
Dumoulin, however, had other priorities on Sunday evening, as shadows began to lengthen over Piazza Duomo. "Next up is beer, barbecue. That's my future," Dumoulin said. "Beyond that, I'm not thinking."